News from the Columbia Climate School

Interwoven: A Speaker Series Talk on Equitable Relationships Between Land and People

On February 19, the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development welcomed Gaby Pereyra, a co-director at the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC LT), for its second Speaker Series talk of the spring 2021 semester. Pereyra’s specific role is ‘land network weaver,’ where she works to seed and strengthen relationships and foster an exchange of knowledge in order to create more equitable opportunities for future generations. Prior to starting her current position, she had multiple years of experience in academia and non-profit work.

fruits in a person's hands
Photo: Pexels

Pereyra is uniquely suited for her position at the NEFOC LT because of her personal experiences. She was born in Venezuela, which, as one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, is home to thousands of species, including high numbers of endemic species. Having nature as such an integral part of her life influenced her to major in biology and simultaneously perform research with farmers at cocoa plantations. Her love for academia inspired her to further her education in Germany, where she earned a master’s degree focusing on plants and agro-ecosystems from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart. Pereyra then joined the Max Planck Society, which conducts research in life sciences, the natural sciences, and humanities. She received her PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry.

Despite her impressive record, Pereyra chose to shift her focus away from academia, due to the infamous ‘publish or perish’ mentality as well as her individual experiences with issues of homophobia, racism, and sexism within the field. After relocating to Queens with her partner, Pereyra began her career in non-profit work in 2016, working at Synergos and GrowNYC before starting her current position at NEFOC LT.

The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust works in nine states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Although these nine states are named for convenience based on current land demarcations, within this defined area there are more than 20 different Indigenous territories and about 24 languages. NEFOC LT asserts that agriculture and farming in the United States is related to systematic land theft, and that the states are artificial systems that have been developed throughout the centuries. NEFOC LT works to advance land sovereignty through permanent and secure land tenure for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian farmers and land stewards who will use the land in a manner that honors ancestral intentions, such as sustainable farming, human habitats, ecosystem restoration, and cultural preservation. The organization works toward this goal through three different programs, one of them being the land network program of which Pereyra is the co-director.

The land network program provides intersectional services for intersectional farmers. The program, which currently hosts 440 members, presents farmers with an all-encompassing liaison who identifies their needs and offers support without any agenda of their own. This unencumbered assistance is necessary in an industry that is undoubtedly suffering. The farmer population is aging, and thousands of acres of farmland are at risk of being lost to development. In addition to overcoming the hurdle of power structures between industries, there are also power structure inequalities within the farming community that need to be fixed. Eighty percent of farm workers are BIPOC, meaning that they comprise a majority of the people within the farming industry. However, more than 95% of farms are owned and managed by white individuals and this disparity means that the people who are working with the land have no control over how it is treated.

Pereyra and the Land Network Program’s goal is to create diversity in the cultural and physical landscape in the United States. The program works to achieve this by focusing on the triple bottom line: being environmentally sound, economically feasible, and socially equitable. Here in New York, Pereyra is working personally to correct some of the issues by partnering with organizations like Farm School NYC, which works to restore the knowledge and resources of communities; Black Farmer’s Fund, which provides capital to Black farmers; and Corbin Hill, which arranges market sales for those farmers.

In the last three years, Pereyra has helped to strengthen more than 25 farm businesses under the philosophy that nurturing the land will allow the land to reciprocate. Some of these businesses include Salvation & Praise Seafood, Ahmed’s Berried Treasure, Choy Division, the Grandpa Farm, Soumppou Kaffo Farm, Luna Family Farm, and Black Yard Farm Coop. All of these businesses focus on regenerative and responsible agriculture, and human habitat in order to build a more sustainable future. Pereyra looks at sustainability not just for us but for future generations, or, as NEFOC LT likes to say, ‘future ancestors.’

Pereyra knew from childhood that she wanted to make an impact. Although she began her career in academia, she soon transitioned to this method of systems impact, a more applications-based way of creating change that brought her back to her roots in Venezuela. She advises students to study with a purpose and to not be afraid of making shifts based on their current perspectives and values. Above all, she says it is important to never compromise yourself for what is a good output, because the greatest impact will always come from those with a real passion for the work in which they engage.

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